The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio introduces Evelyn Ryan, an enterprising woman who kept poverty at bay with wit, poetry, and perfect prose during the "contest era" of the 1950s and 1960s. Evelyn's winning ways defied the church, her alcoholic husband, and antiquated views of housewives. To her, flouting convention was a small price to pay when it came to raising her six sons and four daughters.
Graced with a rare appreciation for life's inherent hilarity, Evelyn turned every financial challenge into an opportunity for fun and profit. The story of this irrepressible woman, whose clever entries are worthy of Erma Bombeck, Dorothy Parker, and Ogden Nash, is told by her daughter Terry with an infectious joy that shows how a winning spirit will always triumph over poverty.
In this memoir, author Terry Ryan tells the story of how her mother was able to be the main breadwinner for a family of 10 children in the 1950s-60s through her love of "contesting".While modern day companies still use the method of contests and sweepstakes to attract more business and increase their fan bases, the entry process has changed. These days, some contests will ask you to submit something creative to be considered as an entry, but most will simply just request email or mailing information as an entry. Back in the 50s and 60s, when Evelyn Ryan (Terry's mother -- Terry is Evelyn's second eldest daughter) was participating, it often required a submission of a poem, catchy jingle, finishing a phrase, etc. Before becoming a wife and mother, Evelyn had worked as a columnist for the Sherwood Chronicle newspaper (Sherwood, Ohio), so she was no stranger to wordsmithing!
above: just a few of the contests Evelyn Ryan entered
Ryan writes of how her mother would go about doing the laundry, ironing, meal planning / prepping all while crafting jingles or little ditties for one contest or another she had discovered. Evelyn would keep a simple spiral notebook near her at all times to write down the best ideas. She'd also use that notebook to keep track of the numerous contests she was entered in at any given time, as one of her secrets was to submit multiple entries under several variations of either her name or one of the children's. When one of the companies would contact to let her know she won something, she'd have to look up the name the company called her to remind herself what she entered to win! Terry writes that whenever Evelyn was interviewed after a win, she was quick to clarify that her wins weren't so much a result of luck as much as dedication and WORK. She would tell people that she had been entering contests since her teens so she was well versed in winning strategies. Evelyn also points out that she actually never won any contest in which winners' names were chosen at random, only ones where something creative had to be submitted by each individual applicant. Throughout this book, Terry shares some of her mother's submitted pieces. Some of them are confusing (even Terry admits that not all were real winners, but sometimes Evelyn would submit them anyway, just to see what would happen). Some of them were pretty humorously risque for the time period!
Terry also shares her own memories of how her mother seemed to save every label or UPC code off of nearly any grocery item ever bought -- "just in case", her mother would reason -- and how there always seemed to be some jar or container in the sink soaking off a label. Evelyn was even known to sometimes go through the trash neighbors set out, looking for even more codes or entry forms for later use. Whenever there were dry spells where she didn't seem to be winning much, Evelyn would supplement the family income by writing poems, articles or humor pieces to submit to magazines and local papers (those that offered pay for submissions, that is).
No matter how little money we had, Mom always had enough change to mail her contest submissions. In Mom's case, considering what a stamp was capable of generating in return, postage was more of a staple than bread or milk in our house.
I was impressed by Evelyn's dedication to provide for her family no matter what. I'm not sure what she was able to accomplish would even be possible in today's expensive world! She knew her talents and created a system in which to provide the household with whatever it needed. The washer broke? She's hunt down a giveaway for a washer and put all her energy into winning it (and she'd win!). Unexpected expenses? She'd gather up won prizes and turn them in for cash value. She used her can-do, optimistic nature to persevere through one major challenge after another -- from family medical expenses, to the their one car dying on them, to a husband with an alcohol & anger problem, to his crap math skills and sporadic employment damn near causing them to lose their house! It was tough to read what Evelyn had to put up with during her husband's lowest points, but he did seem to have a bit of a turn-around in their later years. With every setback she would let herself have a little cry and then straighten her skirt and get to finding a solution. Terry writes that her mother had a knack for taking the family's toughest, darkest times and soon putting a humorous spin on it in the next poem or jingle, giving herself (and readers that could relate!) a laugh at a tough situation. That's a woman to take notes from!
above: one of Evelyn Ryan's submitted poems
This memoir was a charming look at a time in life when people worked through tough times with ingenuity and perseverance, rather than whiny, over-privileged rants. If you haven't seen it yet, I'd also recommend seeing the movie adaptation of this book where Julianne Moore plays Evelyn and Woody Harrelson her husband. I saw the movie years ago, and having now read the book I feel like the movie stuck pretty close to how Terry Ryan laid out this memoir.